Tiger Woods is drifting away from his father, Earl. He is shaking hands with some of the 350 people at a fund-raiser in a Denver home for his charitable Tiger Woods Foundation, while Earl, 68—the man who lovingly raised him to be the phenomenon he is—is swept away by guests to another part of the room. Separated by a sea of bodies, father and son still find a way to keep in touch. "You could see Tiger and his dad catching each other's eyes across the room," says Jerry Grilly, publisher and president of The Denver Post and host of the event. "Kind of checking that everything was going all right. They were watching out for one another."

Two weeks later no such supervision is necessary when, on Father's Day, Woods strolls to victory at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by a record-setting 15 strokes—a performance so eerily dominant it should trigger an antitrust suit. Heavily favored to win this week's British Open at historic St. Andrews in Scotland, Woods proved yet again that he is the most commanding presence in sports today. He also proved that the gangly, often rough-edged kid who first rocked the golf world with his 12-stroke win at the 1997 Masters is long gone. At 24, "Woods is a man in full—and in full control of his complicated life. These days it is not his father who most often cheers him on during tournaments (Earl Woods, ailing with prostate cancer, watched the U.S. Open from his home in Cypress, Calif.) but rather his stunning girlfriend, Joanna Jagoda, 22. Nor does Earl call as many shots in the Woods camp as he used to. "Tiger took over just about all of his personal affairs from his dad because his dad's health has not been well," his swing coach, Butch Harmon, told PEOPLE in December. "He's got everything around him the way he wants it."

Which is to say that Woods has turned himself into one of the most sequestered of superstars, something that only adds to his mystique. "I don't see him out having dinner like other players," says Golf Digest senior writer Pete McDaniel, who co-wrote a book with Earl and helps Tiger write a golf column. "He stays in his room during tournaments and I guess does room service. He can't go many places without being mobbed like a rock star."

Woods is chummy with only a few of his fellow golfers. "I don't think he works hard to be one of the guys," says his pal Stewart Cink, 27, a fifth-year pro. "He has people his age, like me, who he's known for a long time." That inner circle comprises fellow sports prodigies Kobe Bryant of the L.A. Lakers and Ken Griffey Jr. of the Cincinnati Reds, his close friend and golf mentor Mark O'Meara as well as a loyal cluster of high school, college and hometown buddies. The week after the U.S. Open, Woods slipped onto the Black Mountain Golf & Country Club in Henderson, Nev., to caddy for his former college roommate Jerry Chang, who was hoping to qualify for the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championships. The world's best golfer replacing divots in the searing desert heat? "That doesn't surprise me at all," says pro golfer Casey Martin, his friend and onetime Stanford teammate. Around his pals, says Martin, "Tiger wants to lead a normal life as best he can."

The same is true of the time he spends with Jagoda. A political science major at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Jagoda was set up with Woods by one of her Pi Beta Phi sorority sisters. Their first date, however, was far from intimate. "Basically, it was a lot of sorority sisters and Tiger sitting at a table," says one of Jagoda's former housemates. "Everyone wanted to see what he was like." Since then they have been a steady twosome, taking in Lakers games (Woods is a huge fan) and turning up at Chinese and Mexican restaurants near Woods's three-bedroom, 2,200-sq.-ft. contemporary townhouse in California's Manhattan Beach. An aspiring lawyer, Jagoda "is very personable, quiet but assertive," says McDaniel. "Tiger has a great sense of humor, and I see her playing the straight man." Others, though, feel Jagoda has made Woods even less accessible. "She's not super-warm," says one golfer who has met her. "She's a little standoffish. She stays behind the scenes and keeps a low profile, and that's probably why Tiger's hanging with her. But she doesn't really make an effort to get to know people."

But for all the talk of Tiger's remoteness, he is in many ways a typical gen Xer. "He's a lot more average than people think," says Cink. He is, for example, a computer and video game fanatic, going online to play his pals in the latest combat-style amusement and taking his Game Boy with him on the road. Woods also often travels with a Ping-Pong table, on which he battles his friends between golf rounds. "Long, drawn-out matches," says McDaniel. "Tiger takes on all comers."

Okay, so Woods does cruise around in an ocean-blue Porsche Carerra worth about $75,000, and he travels by private jet. But when it comes to the spoils of his singular skills—he is already the PGA Tour's top career money winner, with $16.3 million, and has earned more than $100 million in endorsement deals with the likes of Nike and Buick—Woods is downright frugal. He has plans to build a dream home on his five-acre lakefront lot in Isleworth, an ultra-exclusive community outside Orlando where he now has a condo. But he won't put hammer to nail until he can finance it through his golf earnings, despite all those Nike dollars lying around. "He views that as Monopoly money," Earl Woods told PEOPLE last year. "He wants to have $8 million [in after-tax winnings] to build this house."

Woods shows other signs of being refreshingly grounded. For one thing, he never travels with an entourage. At major tournaments, Team Tiger consists of his mother, Kultida, 56, and her niece from Thailand, Paew, 38. Newly toned and muscular thanks to a rigid, top-secret fitness routine (and to swearing off McDonald's), Woods is always alone when he pops into the gym near his Southern California home. "He doesn't have a personal trainer or anything like that," says fellow gym member Robert Harding. Woods is also a serial autograph-signer. When he attends Little League games in Florida to cheer on Mark O'Meara's 10-year-old son Shaun, "kids are always asking him to sign things," says an Orlando neighbor, "and Tiger never turns down a request."

Thanks to the lessons instilled in him by his parents, Woods seems to be striking a balance between the demands of his otherworldly talent and fame and his need for normality. "He'd rather hang out with his friends and play video games than anything else," says coach Harmon. In fact, Harmon remembers staying over at Woods's Isleworth condo recently and being awakened in the dead of night by noises in the living room. There he found the most famous athlete in the land, all alone and hunched happily over his newest video game. "I said, 'Are you still up?' " Harmon recalled, "and Tiger said, 'Oh yeah—I'm gonna get this game.' " No one with a grip on his senses would ever bet against that.

Alex Tresniowski
Tom Cunneff, Maureen Harrington, Lorenzo Benet, Edmund Newton and Ana Figueroa in Los Angeles, Beverly Keel in Chicago and Gary McKechnie in Orlando

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Cunneff,
  • Maureen Harrington,
  • Lorenzo Benet,
  • Edmund Newton,
  • Ana Figueroa,
  • Beverly Keel,
  • Gary McKechnie.